Simple Tips for Your Golf Game
Sometimes science can be fun, like when you take it outside.
Posted Apr 23, 2019
When USA Today conducted a survey regarding the most difficult tasks in sport, hitting a major-league pitch came in #1. No surprise, since fastballs can travel up to a hundred miles and hour. After that came race car driving and pole vaulting.
Hitting a long and straight tee shot on the golf course came in fourth.
Odds are that few of us will be practicing our Fosbury Flops any time soon, but millions will hit the links this year. This despite the fact that hitting little dimpled balls with sticks is incredibly difficult. So what can we do about it? One solution is to practice, and that's certainly a great start, but science can help too. Researchers across the globe study sport like any other topic, and golf is no exception. As the grass starts to green and temperatures warm, here are a few discoveries scientists have made to help your game.
Don't think about it. This one is the most obvious, and also most important. Thinking about hazards, slices, or anything else that can ruin our game actually hurts us. David Wegner from the University of Virginia saw this scientifically when he advised research participants of the dangers of overhitting putts. Simply warning players of potential mistakes caused them to do just that, overshooting putts by over a foot that would otherwise have landed just inches away. Brains are great, but they're terrible at reminding us to avoid things, so sometimes it's best not to get them involved.
Avoid crowds the smart way. Okay, this has nothing to do with the golf swing, but crowds can still have a big impact on our day. We've all tried to squeeze in a quick eighteen holes, only to find that the four hours we had set aside rapidly ballooned to six. One issue is tee times, with closely packed groups leading to much longer days. Sheryl Kimes of Cornell University has even studied this phenomenon, using advanced computer models to search for potential "optimal tee times." The solution—if your club packs players with intervals tighter than twelve minutes, you might want to try someplace else, because math says that somebody isn't finishing their game before sundown.
Aim to never come up short. It's simple physics that no under-hit putt will ever fall into the hole. For that reason, it's always best to give our shots on the green a little bit extra, but how much? Dave Pelz, the only instructor who could unquestionably get away with writing a book called "The Golf Bible," came up with a quick solution—when putting, give the ball enough oomph to roll roughly two feet past the hole. That way, even if you miss, the follow up should be easy. Or, even better, take the math further and shoot for two feet past the hole, multiplied by the odds of making the shot. That's about as close to a mathematically optimal shot as you can make.
Take your time. The current speed golfing record is is a 65 shot game in 44 minutes. That record was set by Christopher Smith, who used only six clubs because he played at nearly a full sprint. Speed golf is a great opportunity to get some exercise, with score considering both number of shots and minutes on the course, but we don't need to be so ambitious. Even just walking can burn up to a thousand calories or more and lead to significant heart-healthy exercise. So enjoy the course and take your time, knowing that golfers enjoy reduced mortality rates due to the exercise. At worst, it's a nice day outside.
Kimes, S. and Schruben, L. (2002). Golf Course Revenue Management: A Study of Tee Time Intervals. Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management, 1,111-120.
Pelz, D. (2000). Dave Pelz’ Putting Bible: The Complete Guide to Mastering the Green. New York: Doubleday.
Sell, T., Abt, J., and Lephart, S. (2008). Physical Activity-Related Benefits of Walking During Golf. In D. Crews and R. Lutz (Eds.), Science and Golf V: Proceedings of the World Scientific Congress of Golf (pp. 128-132). Mesa, AZ: Energy in Motion, Inc.